Jane Austen and Me

I got some news last Tuesday that took my breath away.

In the past two years, I’ve written (among other things) four mysteries for adults. Three were part of a historical series. One novel featured Jane Austen.

This week I got an email from a woman in charge of collections at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, England.

It was about my Austen novel, A Dangerous Tide, and her decision to add it to the museum’s Reading Room.

Felt Like a Dream

Sue Dell, from the museum, said the following: “Having reviewed your book we have decided we will place your book on our public shelves in the Reading Room at Jane Austen’s House. It will remain on the shelves for 12 months. We like to show the public that Jane still inspires writers today, and your story is a lovely example of this.”

I read the email several times before it sank in. My novel featuring my all-time favorite author, Jane Austen, is sitting on a shelf in Jane’s house in England, just down the short hallway from the dining room where Jane sat at her tiny, twelve-sided table and

Jane Austen's famous 12-sided writing table

wrote Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and others.

I was more thrilled by her email–and my book being placed in their Reading Room–than any award I ever received for a book. Below is a photo of one side of the reading room, and the other photo shows Sue Dell adding A Dangerous Tide to the shelves. [And below that, I'll share a dozen photos of places in Jane's house that appear in the book.]

Jane Austen House Museum Reading Room

Sue Dell, Collections Volunteer

The Fun of Onsite Research

The events in the book were purely fictional, but the historical setting is accurate, the historical events of the time are real, and the Austen family is based on a lot of research done over the years of enjoying her books and movies and biographies.

For those of you who subscribe to the series (and for my friends who’ve read the book), I thought I’d share some photos of my trip to Jane’s house last September. I have included photos of places featured in the book’s story.

In no particular order then…

Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton, England

Jane's pony cart

outdoor bakehouse

kitchen hearth

Jane's upstairs bedroom overlooking court

seeing Jane's view from her bedroom window

courtyard below Jane's bedroom; bakehouse opposite

relaxing in the Austen garden

 

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Writing á la Pavlov

In previous weeks I’ve shared why I went AWOL for months, the need to rest, reflect and realign, how to re-figure your writing output, and how to avoid burnout in the first place.

What if you’re ready to write again?

You may not have hours every day to write, or you may have tight deadlines. So you need to make the most of your time. And that means getting started quickly. 

Write on Cue

A jump-starting activity is something that makes your brain realize immediately that “now it’s time to write!” If Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, I thought surely I could learn to write on command.

Rituals and Routines

I’ve always loved reading about other writers’ rituals, the things they do to “prime the pump” for writing. I never felt much need–nor wanted to use the writing time–to do much of that myself. I tried a few times, but the writing exercises would take me 30-60 minutes and Julia Cameron’s morning pages took me an hour. (I consider myself a pretty fast writer, but most of the things that “only take 10-15 minutes” take me considerably longer–including these blog posts.)

What I needed, I realized, was a short cue along the lines of the ringing bell for Pavlov’s dog. I needed something to trigger an automatic writing response–and it needed to be something I could do at home, on the road, or when staying with my grandkids.

Time-Tested Help

If your writing time is short–and you need to get started quickly–here are some rituals and routines that other writers have used:

  • Light a special lamp or candle
  • Put on a particular kind of music that works for you (Lyrics? Instrumental?)
  • Prayer, meditation and/or affirmations for writers
  • Hot tea or hot chocolate
  • Eat a banana or apple or something healthy
  • A short walk–ten minutes or so
  • Stack dishwasher, pick up house (Some writers do this for their jumpstart, but it doesn’t appeal to me!)

Again, I needed short things to do. The danger is always that the ritual takes over your whole writing time. If you have all day to write, that’s a different ball game. You can take a whole hour to get started, if you want to.

Make a List

It’s a good idea to have a number of rituals to choose from too. “Create as many practices as you can, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” says Vinita Hampton Wright in The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life. “Their effectiveness will vary. When one thing doesn’t help so much, go to something else…adapting practices according to the season of the year.”

This makes sense to me. While in the winter, a good cup of hot chocolate is perfect, during hot Texas summers, it’s about the last thing you want. I think a written list posted near my writing space would be a good idea too. I might have a whole list of rituals to choose from, but so often when I try to think of one, they all escape me.

If you want to read more about the power of these little habits, see a book by Mason Curry called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In the book 161 artists, writers, and other creative types give insights into the specific rituals they use to get the creative juices flowing on command.

And doesn’t that sound appealing?

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Beware! Burnout Ahead

“Writing is not everything,” says Lisa Shearin in Writer Magazine. “And if you want longevity in this business, play isn’t just important–it’s critical. We get so intensely focused on having achieved the dream and working so hard to keep the dream going, that we’re blind to the signs that if we keep going down that road at a fast pace, that dream could quickly turn into a nightmare.”

Recipe for Burnout

I was very glad to read her opinion piece–and I wish that message was published more often. I wish someone had said it to me years ago. Having a healthy drive is good, but letting yourself be driven–by others or your own inner critic or even your perceived budget needs–will eventually ruin the joy you originally brought to your writing.

“Dreams are meant to be savored and enjoyed,” Shearin says. “You do have to work hard, but sometimes, the work can wait.”

Too Late

Great advice, but what if you’re already burned out? What if–from overwork, juggling too many jobs and family members, a major loss, or chronic illness–your ideas have dried up? I’ve been there twice (previously) in my writing life, and it was a scary place to be.

Peggy Simson Curry spoke about this in a Writer Magazine archive article first published in 1967. She detailed the process she followed to “slowly work [her] way back to writing” and discover what had killed her creative urge in the first place.

Face the Fear

I think most writers would agree with Peggy that fear is at the basis of being unable to write–fear that a writer can’t write anything worth publishing. Burned out writers constantly think of writing something that will sell

“This insidious thinking,” Curry says, “persuades the writer to question every story idea that comes to him. He no longer becomes excited with glimpses of theme, characters, setting, threads of plot. He can only ask desperately, ‘But who will want it?’”

Healing Choices

Among other suggestions, this writer said it was very important to deliberately get outside, away from the writing, and just enjoy the world around you. In other words, play.

Coming out of burnout can be done, but it often takes methodical, small daily disciplines to do it. For me lately, it’s been watering the tiny vegetable garden my granddaughters helped plant and walking to a nearby pond to watch the turtles (doing nothing) and walk back. Earlier, when my eyesight was better at night, I stitched small quilted wall hangings, and that finally unclogged my creativity. Things that help will be different for each writer. 

I feel the burnout lifting lately. I still tire more quickly, but a little trip to the pond and back seems to revive me and restore that “want to” so important in writing stories. This time, I am determined to keep up the routine, even when I feel better, and avoid the burnout path in the future. It takes less time–and is more FUN–to do these routines when you already feel well than to do twice as much to regain your failing health (mental and/or physical).

So take time for yourself today, even ten minutes here and there. You’ll be so glad that you did!

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The Gift of Time

It isn’t my birthday or Christmas or Mother’s Day, but it feels like it today. Why? Because I’ve decided to give myself a wonderful gift now.

The gift of time.

I’ve been writing and publishing since my kids were babies. They’re in their thirties now, with their own children ranging from toddlers to teenagers. During many of my children’s growing-up years, I was either single parenting or the family relied heavily on my income. Slowing down to study my craft was a dream I put on my yearly goals list, but it was rarely an option. The 50+ hours of work per week needed to generate income: writing books, teaching writing, speaking, writing test questions, and doing private critiques.

Always Running, Faster, FASTER!

Whenever I thought about studying more, reading more, taking more time to grow as a writer (versus making every hour a billable hour), I would promise myself, Later, when things slow down and the cash flow eases up.

Even when that day came where I could cut back, I found that the very idea panicked me. I had drummed into my head for so many years that freelancer warning, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” You learn to go without paid sick days or paid vacations–let alone time to study one’s craft.

If Not NOW, When?

For several years, I’ve been having a discussion with a dear writing friend about slowing down and spending time to improve our writing. I took motivational workshops, learned how to “work smarter, not harder,” streamlined my work habits, and multi-tasked until I met myself coming and going. And what did I do with the time freed up by all this smarter working? Took on more projects, learned how to blog, Facebook and Twitter…but rarely studied. Oh, I bought craft books, but the books that got my full attention seemed to focus on time management.

And my friend? Except for having grandchildren, she was as busy as I was. Yet she got her MFA in children’s writing (traveling half-way around the world to do it), and is now working on her Ph.D. While I don’t have the money for either of those things, I could certainly be studying more. And that’s where I decided to apply my gift of time.

Spending Vs. Investing Time

Starting today, I am giving myself the gift of time to study. I think if I do four or five hours of writing (the moneymaking activities) in the morning, then I could surely study for an hour every afternoon. To survive in the changing publishing times, we will all need to become better writers. And if not now, when? (By the way, it isn’t something I feel I should do. It’s something I want to do. I honestly do love to study.)

Maybe you can’t afford to work part-time yet. (I’m not positive that I can either. I’ll find out!) I know that situation is a reality for many of us. But if you can squeeze out even a daily hour to read current books in your field and study a writing craft book, I encourage you to do it. I’ve signed up for a writing course online which takes an hour per day, and I can’t wait to be a student again! It’s my gift to me.

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How the Chunky Method Saved My Life

A couple of months ago, after being sick and traveling and meeting two book deadlines, I stalled when given some unwelcome health news which required tests and more tests. I got really, really behind on an adult mystery, and for hours I would struggle to write, only to throw it all out at the end of the day.

I was used to writing in 90-minute or two-hour blocks, taking a break, then doing it all again. I’d used that schedule for years, since I no longer have small children living with me. But sickness and burn-out had taken their toll, and I wouldn’t make my deadline at the rate I was going.

Enter the Chunky Method!

I had signed up to attend a Saturday writing workshop, and I was eager to be around other writers t. The speaker, Allie Pleiter, was to talk about her book, The Chunky Method Handbook: Your Step-By-Step Plan to Write That Book Even When Life Gets in the Way. To be honest, I didn’t expect to learn anything really new. I just wanted to be encouraged.

I got so much more!

In a Nutshell

Based on our personalities, our lifestyles, our season of life (small children, day job, retired empty nester) and our health, we all write in different “chunks.” By Allie’s definition, a chunk of writing is what you can comfortably do in one sitting, stopping when you pass the point of “this writing is good” into “the writing I’m doing now will have to be tossed out because it stinks.” She had a test for determining the length of your natural chunk. Big and little chunks are equally valuable.

Frankly, I was going to skip the test when I got home and move on to the rest of her book. I had to get busy! Anyway, my natural chunk for years had been about 90 minutes, or about 1500 words. I knew that already. But was it anymore? My writing life was certainly no longer working.

Back to the Drawing Board

I decided to do the chunky test. (You’re supposed to do this five days in a row, one chunk per day.) I didn’t have five days to use for this, so I did four chunks spread throughout a day. I was careful to stop when I felt too tired to keep going productively. Big discovery!

My chunk had shrunk!

I wasn’t able to comfortably write 1500 words at a sitting. My four chunks averaged only 500 words, and my sitting was only 45 minutes. At first I was really dismayed. I was too far behind to write the novel in 500-word chunks. Or so I thought.

I had nothing to lose by trying this method of writing my “comfortable chunk,” then resting a good while, then doing another “comfortable chunk,” and so on throughout the day.

Changing It Up

It worked! Before the Chunky Method workshop, my struggles had only produced about 1200 words per day, and sometimes not that much. Using the Chunky Method, I was able to average about 5,000 words per day rough draft, and some days nearly 8,000 words. And with the rest breaks between the chunks, where I walked or just went outside, I wasn’t stiff and sore or even very tired in the evenings. [NOTE: Determining your "chunk" is just the first step in the Chunky Method. I would tell you more, but I don't want to plagiarize her book.]

Because I was writing so close to the deadline, I followed my own advice and got a paid critique from a writer I know and trust who has written award-winning mysteries. (Thank you, Mary Blount Christian!) After revising according to her excellent critique, I was able to turn in the manuscript on time. (And very little revision was requested by the editor this time too.)

So, in case you’re stuck, or you’re trying to write in the midst of stressful circumstances, I’d encourage you to buy this book. It could change your writing life. It sure did mine!

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